The Battle For London’s Character


The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London’s East End has been in existence in some form or other since the 1570s and has been going like the clappers ever since. Here were forged the bells of St Pauls’, Bow Bells, the great Big Ben bell itself, America’s Liberty Bell and many grand bells supplied throughout European and Russian churches.

It’s an unassuming workshop in an old row of houses, but Britain’s oldest manufacturing company has its place in history. In 2016 it announced that it was closing down. Alan and Kathryn Hughes, the fourth-generation proprietors of the bell foundry, were selling up because their children didn’t want to take it on.

It’s another version of a frequently heard story. My local butcher closed shop because his son felt that being a tradesman was common. He wanted to be a singer on ‘The X factor’. London’s former structure of useful stores, manufacturers and services has vanished, leaving us with coffee shops and other hospitality venues that cater to tourism. But Whitechapel may prove a step too far…

We learned in the pandemic that trade only survives if it adapts. In this way many small independents fared better than chain stores, which have large staffs and no way of quickly altering their services nationwide. In a way, it didn’t matter where the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was based. There was still work to be had and they had centuries of knowledge and experience. Old companies provide continuity. The foundry utilised craft skills handed down across the generations.

Enter various building protection trusts, who promised that all fixtures and fittings would remain. They didn’t; they were sold off despite huge public support for the foundry. Enter also ‘Bippy’ Seigel, a New York property developer, who plans yet another boutique tourist hotel like the formerly cool Soho House chain. He wants to put a pool on the roof and ‘reference’ the foundry with some bits and bobs of café decoration.

But there’s a snag.

The foundry is right next to the Whitechapel mosque, and wouldn’t it be uncomfortable having coke-snorting bikini clad guests cavorting next to a place of worship? Whitechapel is not Hyde Park – it’s a working class ethnic neighbourhood of considerable vitality. But a new influx of middle class residents is changing the area. One woman I know moved into a jazzy renovation in Middlesex Street without realising that it was one half of Petticoat Lane. Others had moved in only to lodge formal complaints about ‘tradesmen noise’. A hipster hotel (ie small rooms, Nespresso machines) feels like poverty-porn tourism.

Meanwhile, a company in Madrid came up with a way of continuing the foundry in its original former. Said its founder Adam Lowe: ‘The future of bell making is bright. The churches are no longer the main commissioners of bells but the market is diversifying and new opportunities exist around the world, from courtyard houses in China via the use of scanning and re-making for preservation to the creation of bell-related editions with artists.’

To no avail. ‘Bippy’ Siegel won the day. The local council, Tower Hamlets, followed the money to the hotel development.

Then came another twist. The Secretary of State for Housing Development called in the planning application pending a public enquiry. It’s just concluded but as yet there has been no answer. Who will win, the boutique hotel with the bell-themed café or the actual foundry? We won’t know for a while but I can take an educated guess.

Of course we don’t live in a museum and constant change is part of London’s makeup, but the anaemic referencing of more interesting times creates falsity, like an accountant going to the staff party in coloured socks to prove that they’re interesting.

There’s a product in a blue and white pot called ‘Fish’. It’s hair gel, and it’s very good. But how did it get its name? When I was still working in Soho there was a wet fish shop off Berwick Street that closed down when the residents were forced out by rent hikes. It became a hairdressers ironically called ‘Fish’ (the butcher shop now sells T-shirts but sadly isn’t called ‘Meat’) and they marketed their brand, so that a ghost of the past, like a faded painted sign on the side of an old building, haunts the present – the present being low-waged hospitality outlets where you can have anything you want so long as it’s noodles, coffee or a cocktail.

Welcome to the new world, where everything useful is ordered online and thinking globally is just a buzz-phrase meaning All The Same Everywhere. And the only thing that will make a coffee shop in Whitechapel different will the bell-stamped postcards they sell at the counter.

31 comments on “The Battle For London’s Character”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    What a load of bells! (Sorry, I wanted to be the first)

    I jest, because what Mr Admin says is only too true. Everything of interest in UK-not just London-is being destroyed. And for Heaven’s sake, how many more cafe’s do we need? More people have less money due to the virus. When I was short of money, when I was younger, the first thing to go was eating out at cafes.

    Don’t forget, the countryside is also being destroyed. Eg-the totally unnecessary (thank goodness for spell check) HS2

    ” My local butcher closed shop because his son felt that being a tradesman was common. He wanted to be a singer on ‘The X factor’” I have never seen the programme, only the trailers. Surely to appear on “X Factor” is common. BTW, only common people use the word “Common”, and posh people never use the word “Posh”

    I’ve seen the Liberty Bell. It’s cracked-just like democracy in the USA

  2. Jan says:

    Dear Mr. E. Terrestrial,

    It’s not only the distasteful aspect of such a daft hotel place and it’s cavorting clientele being next to a place sacred to believers. It’s also that this mosque has quite the loudest Call to prayer I ever remember hearing at any mosque! I know someone will say that the call to prayer doesn’t vary in decibels anywhere- and perhaps it is more to do with acoustics. The mosque being surrounded by long and often times narrow streets that somehow seem to channel the sound down from the minaret down toward the pavement! It’s ever so loud though. Ringing. (Unlike the bells)

    Still reading this citrus novel – will be in touch.

    A contributor annoyed by this wanton, short sighted destruction.

    Yours sincerely

    P.S. It’s really time for you to consider making another film. Contact Mr. Spielberg tell him you are prepared to take his calls.

  3. Martin Tolley says:

    Brian – and most posh people seem to dislike the Common Market?

  4. Paul C says:

    Fabulous film about casting a bell is ‘Andrei Rublev’ by Tarkovsky. Worth tracking down.

    I’ll try to stick to the point in future……..

  5. Brooke says:

    Re the Liberty Bell:

    After its arrival from London, the bell cracked on test ringing. One wonders about quality control at Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Or did they think to put one over on the colonials? The Bell was recast twice by workmen here in an attempt to make it less brittle and to give a better ring tone. Supposedly, Whitechapel Bell shipped another bell but it too failed. The Bell’s final damaging crack came after almost 100 years of use, announcing legislative and other important public assemblies.

    The expression of democracy is not the Bell, but its inscription. Hence, one of its last ringings was to celebrate the passage of the 19th amendment.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    No Martin, I rather feel it is the common people who hate Common Market/Eu/Europe.

  7. snowy says:

    London’s Character? Dodgy…

    By way of illumination allow me to introduce a notorious family from Whitechapel, wrong-uns to a man, ᵥₑₗₗ ₐₗₘₒₛₜ.

    Henry Paxman 40, two counts concerning some ‘hot’ lignum vitae, he got off one charge but the second saw him ‘enjoying’ an all expenses paid trip to the Antipodes. [Trial date: 19th February 1806]

    John Paxman 22, £450 worth of silk stolen from a dyer’s where his brother William happened to work. Guilty, sentenced to be transported. [Trial date: 14th February 1816]

    [Those expecting this tale to end in a touching family reunion, don’t hold your breath, Australia is really, really BIG!]

    William Paxman seems to be something of the ‘white-sheep’ of the family, he apprehended John Anthony the noted blanket lifter [Trial date: 15th September 1819]

    [To read the transcripts in full pop over to the LondonLives Project.

    I was over there for another reason and that done, I wondered what would happen if I just tried entering another name… ]

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Hah! I have already met the silk thief and another gentleman whose shop had a fire closer to dates in which I was interested. Don’t think they’re mine, especially now that I have more info.
    Is the LondonLives project accessible on line? I’ll go check shall I?

    Bells are a really touchy subject, possibly because they were used to mark important events, including events in otherwise unremarkable families (weddings and deaths particularly. Only royal babies get bells, perhaps because parents get little enough sleep as it is.) There are stories about bells ringing on their own and there’s the legend that being in a bell chamber when a peal is rung can kill you. Apparently it doesn’t, although I wonder if the snow packed into the chamber’s louvres would make a difference.

    I remember when the bell foundry was sold in 2016 and I thought that was the end of it. Actually having another chance is remarkable. Loved Brooke’s recital of that bell’s history. It would have been a previous family’s business, though. The recent family was only four generations which would only take it into the late 19th century.

  9. Roger says:

    Are boutique tourist hotels going to be quite such a profitable investment in the future? I very much hope not.

    I must say, though, I rather like the idea of having coke-snorting bikini clad guests cavorting next to a place of worship with a fortissimo call to prayer, especially a place of worship whose worshippers want to kill people whose sexual tastes they do not share. They deserve each other.

    Incidentally, what is the economic rationale behind the explosion in the number of barbers’ shops in London? Barbers’ shops and nail parlours seem to be the growth industries of London. Are they ways for criminals to launder their money?

  10. Joel Stein says:

    I fear you’re turning into America. I’m very sorry for you. We’ve sold out our heritage sites for a few bucks and we’re all the poorer for it. My condolences.

  11. Brian Evans says:

    Well said Roger.

  12. Peter T says:

    According to my dictionary, industry is the processing of raw materials and manufacture of goods: creation of wealth as opposed to mere money shifting. I’ll always give making bells or bikinis, let’s not go into white powder trades, priority over restaurants, nail bars and all the other fast buck rubbish our government believes to constitute an economy.

    Castings are brittle and fracture surprisingly easily, especially when they’re new. It’s quite likely that one as big as the Liberty Bell would be damaged during transport or in the loading and unloading from the ship.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    I’d be interested to see how far any complaint from snowflake guests in any hotel made from the ex-foundry (and anyone who stayed there would have to be a massive ‘Sense Of Entitlement’ not living in the real world, Snowflake, hipster twat) about early Calls To Prayer from the Mosque would get. Personally, I’d like it if, just for them, the Mosque turned their P.A. up to eleven.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    I believe, also, that, at one point, the USA tried to return The Liberty Bell for a refund, or free replacement, because of the crack. The reply of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was on the lines of: ‘ Please Return the bell with it’s receipt and original packaging…’

  15. Liz Thompson says:

    Roger and Brian, please note that there are LGBTQ Muslims too, and not all Muslim worshippers disown or threaten them. Just as not all Catholics blockade family planning/abortion clinics, or Jews reject their gay family members. Religion is a bloody (literally, both now and historically) battleground, but the original texts rarely specify brutality and persecution, and where it does occur, recent interpretation tends to view it as more political/territorial than actual religious belief.
    Having said that, I would snigger at the muezzin being turned up to maximum for the first call to prayer of the day…..

  16. Roger says:

    Liz Thompson: the passages in the koran condemning homosexuality are pretty plain unfortunately. There also parts justifying sex with slaves and killing fornicators and adulterers and detailing specific punishments. It’s much more difficult for muslims to dodge their sources than for other religions.

  17. Paul C says:

    Just bought a book from an online crime specialist called Baskerville Books who have 25,000 books and don’t seem to appear on Amazon or Abe. They use Paypal which I think is safe and my book was sent swiftly and is in excellent condition.

    Worth a look.

  18. Brian Evans says:

    Again, I agree with Roger. Actually, I am an atheist and equally detest all regions for the evils they have committed, and still are committing. I am not clever enough to understand Israel, but I admire the Jewish faith as they don’t try and convert people religion wise, and also the the pacifist Quakers. I find the demonisation of the Jewish faith as the “moneylenders” ill-educated to a degree, as the Quakers are also moneylenders as in Barclays and Lloyds banks.

  19. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Quakers also made chocolate, which must be good.( Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry are the ones that come to mind).

  20. Brian Evans says:

    Now you’re talking Cornelia, though perhaps I ought to be blaming them for me becoming a borderline diabetic. Obviously, it can’t possibly be my fault.

  21. John Griffin says:

    it’s not just business and buildings – where I live by Cannock Chase (about 30 sq miles of AONB), the County Council is closing down access to all small car parks and access roads, restricting parking to pay-and-display. This is because they want to ‘upgrade’ the area for mountain biking in the Commonwealth Games. This will effectively close some of the better access points for the elderly and disabled. The local MPs and county councillors – all Tory – only respond to thousands of objections from actual local residents with the same statement – basically, piss off.

  22. Peter Dixon says:

    I don’t think anywhere is safe unless you look at areas of Edinburgh, York, Cambridge and the like. Old industrial areas just don’t convert to modern practices, although during the 70’s and 80’s lots of design companies or architects practises seemed to take over old premises and then use the spaces sympathetically. Nowadays a city centre prime site means that property owners go for the big buck rather than the meagre rents from a bunch of graphic designers or 3D visualisation ‘experts’. Plus, people who work want parking spaces, hence the move out to industrial parks and easy motorway access. City centre’s are where tourists want to be, but the very fact that they’re there in large numbers means that they unintentionally contribute to the demise of what they’re looking for.

  23. Barbara Boucke says:

    To Helen – I know you didn’t ask me, but LondonLives is online –

  24. Barbara Boucke says:

    It’s actually No caps needed.

  25. Paul C says:

    Cornelia – re Cadbury, there is an excellent book by Deborah Cadbury called Chocolate Wars.

    Her best books are : The Dinosaur Hunters and The Lost King of France, 2003

    She is a brilliant writer – esp The Dinosaur Hunters. Try it………….

  26. Helen Martin says:

    My Mother always said that if she was ever tempted to rejoin a church it would be the Quakers. They are involved in all sorts of good work and, as noted, pacifist. Having said that I wonder how they square the continued production of chocolate, a known addictive material and a factor in diabetes and what are we to make of all those Quaker iron casters who produced the cannons used by the English government? All of those “Quaker” businesses are the developments of individuals, not of the denomination, of course.

  27. Brooke says:

    Kicking the ball back on the playing field:
    Peter Ackroyd notes that London was, til modern times, considered very noisy and loud–partially due to almost constant ringing of bells. Think about how many churches there were/are to ring the liturgical hours; you get an idea of the noise pollution. How much did Whitechapel Bell contribute to that? A foundry is not a green business–where did WBF’s waste go? Perhaps a boutique hotel is not so bad.

    One does fear for the character of one’s home city. Building on Peter D’s comment, here in Philadelphia, an old industrial city, many neighborhoods are taken over by 21st century business–small IT shops, research labs, start-up business, architects, accountants and the ubiquitous graphic designers. Unfortunately followed by residential housing developers. One lives in buildings called, The PIano Factory, The Chocolate Factory, etc.

    The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia were founded by the Religious Society of Friends and this city is steeped in Quaker history and its institutions. Here Quakers made their fortunes in cotton, sugar, iron and steel production (foundries) and whaling –the oil trade of the 18-19th centuries. See Letitia Mott’s (early suffragette and Quaker minister) protest against same. To answer Helen’s point– I think it was a matter of “individual consciousnees”–an underlying value of the Quaker faith.

  28. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Brooke, that puts it nicely. We all have choices to make in our lives and some have more effects on the world than others.

  29. Ian Luck says:

    I’m Athiest, always have been. I have no problem at all with any religion – people can follow whichever faith they want. As long as they don’t try to get me to join in, we’ll all be fine. A religious bloke at work asked me who I believed in. I replied: “Me. If I make a mistake, it’s my fault. If there were to be voices in my head telling me to do something terrible, that would be psychosis, not some deity. I believe in Me.” He was really bothered by this, but has never mentioned religion to me since.

  30. Ian Luck says:

    Spelt ‘Atheist’ wrong. My mistake.

  31. Helen Martin says:

    If Grammerly would help me with affect and effect I might be willing to try it. The noun is effect, the verb is affect but effect looks wrong up there.

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